Editorial from Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal

Online Charter Education in Ohio
Posted on 07/02/2018
Image of EditorialState Sen. Lou Tehar urged his colleagues to approve House Bill 87, part of a legislative package designed to improve the operation of online charter schools. The Cincinnati Republican described the measure as a “stopgap,” and that it is. The question that hovers is: To what purpose?

The Republican majorities at the Statehouse followed Tehar’s advice. They sent the package to Gov. John Kasich for his signature. Those seeking election in the fall now are in position to tell voters they have responded to the scandal in online charter schools, in which the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and others practiced a version of fraud, collecting public money under false pretense.

Is that the stopgap, doing just enough to create the impression of making needed repairs, or what amounts to political cover?

Republicans insist they are serious about genuine reform. The likes of Ryan Smith, the House speaker, and Peggy Lehner, the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, bring credibility to the talk. The package headed to the governor makes advances, such as reducing the number of consecutive hours of inactivity online before a student must withdraw.

There also are the many years of neglect, providing little oversight as the ECOT crowd, especially, contributed generously to the party’s coffers. That neglect helps explain the closing of ECOT, and more recently the Akron Digital Academy. Lawmakers and others at the state level failed to set up the necessary operating structure for online schools to succeed for students and their families.

In that way, it makes sense to create a study committee, as the new legislation does, to examine how to fund online schools. For too long, the state was content to route money based on enrollment claims, leading to the ECOT mess and attempting to claw back $80 million. Now officials rightly want a record of student activity online as an indicator of actual learning.

Yet even that requirement falls short. After all, learning still takes place offline, say, reading a book. Dave Yost, the state auditor, recommends adding a competency component to funding. That deserves attention, plus lessons possibly gained from other states. Time is required to sort through the complexities of funding.

What most disappoints about the approved package is the absence of sufficient transparency and accountability provisions. Recall how ECOT hired two firms owned by Bill Lager, the school’s founder. The state, and taxpayers, must have protection against self-dealing schemes and conflicts of interest. That means following the money, or full disclosure of how public money is spent, from lobbying to marketing and travel.

The package lacks a provision allowing online schools to “disenroll” students, accelerating the move to an appropriate alternative. These and other missing elements signal just how much repair work remains. They reveal, too, that the Republican majorities could have delivered a much more substantial “stopgap” in responding to the scandal they created.
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